The concentration camp at Auschwitz has always held a certain fascination for me. The more history books or memoirs I read, the more documentaries I saw, the more I wanted to see with my own eyes the place where such horrors were committed. Daniel too was interested, and so finding ourselves with 10 days spare in December, we booked a trip to Poland. This blog post is about our visit to Auschwitz, and there will be another covering our time in the lovely Polish cities of Krakow, Warsaw and Gdansk.
We flew into Krakow and made our way to the town of Oswieçim, the Polish name for the town known as Auschwitz while under German occupation. There are numerous tour buses that go straight from the tourist hotels of Krakow to Auschwitz, but we wanted to stay in the town for 2 nights and get a feeling for the town that housed the infamous death camp, as opposed to just visit the camps. We travelled the 70 odd kilometres by train and on our first evening there wandered the old town of Oswieçim. It was surprisingly beautiful, with magnificent old buildings lining the market square, and an ancient castle perched on a hill above the river.
We learned that the town has a long and rich history resulting from its strategic location in southern Poland, as close to the European capitals of Prague, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest as it is to Warsaw. With such a strategic location it became an important railway junction, which contributed to the decision by the Germans to build a death camp there.
The Auschwitz camps have been a museum since 1947, and there are two main parts to the museum; Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau). There is also an Auschwitz III, a smaller camp constructed to hold inmates labouring to build a factory a few kms away. It is not open to visitors.
Auschwitz 1 is an ex-Polish army barracks in the town itself. This compound was taken over by the Germans in 1940 and developed to imprison up to 10,000 inmates. It served as the administrative headquarters for the whole Auschwitz complex, and its dozens of barrack buildings now house museum exhibitions. Each building is dedicated to a particular facet of the Holocaust, such as the story of the Jews from each of the occupied European countries (I was surprised to learn that the Hungarian Jews were the most numerous members of Auschwitz at 400,000), the personal effects taken from the arrivals at the camp, the treatment of Roma etc. It is a small compact site. One of the most impactful displays is the thousands of spectacles taken from those arriving at the camp, others are the mounds of their shoes, their combs, some of the hair that was cut from them on arriving. The huge volumes are visually shocking and hard to forget. There are also information panels around the property explaining the history of particular aspects of the camp such as where the prisoners gathered for roll call, where some were executed, where others where hung. One gruesome panel after another. Personally, what I found most disturbing was the video footage of the rounding up of hundreds of Hungarian Jews in Budapest, well-dressed women out shopping being herded along the street with their hands in the air, while their Gentile neighbours seemingly oblivious carry on shopping and dining.
The other camp, Auschwitz II, is 3 kms from town. Free shuttle buses run regularly from Auschwitz 1, but we chose to walk, passing alongside and finally across railway tracks, until arriving at the infamous watch tower standing over the railway entrance. Despite having seen images of it many times, it is still chilling to pass through it and into the camp, knowing the fate of the approximately 1.5 million who entered before us. The camp is unimaginably large, divided by barbed wire and ditches into various districts to separately house men, women, children, gypsies, “prisoners” as well as other sub groupings by nationality. Over 100,000 people were held here at one point, accommodated in almost 300 barracks. Although some brick barracks are preserved, most of the original barracks were wooden and all that remains of these is their concrete footprint and their tall brick chimneys. To look over the site now is to see a huge expanse of ground, with orderly lines of building footprints running in rows into the distance, bound by barbed wire and watch towers. The gas chambers and crematoria are grouped far from the entrance, and are now just a pile of rubble, having been dynamited by the German army as they fled. Other than the layout of the camp, there is little to “see” as such, and it is mainly a site for reflection. Our first visit here was at 8am just as it opened and we were largely alone for a few hours. Returning in the afternoon we found the site packed with hundreds of visitors, quietly walking around or following their guides. Amongst the visitors were descendants of camp inmates who carried photos of their ancestors, as well as several German school tour groups. Visiting in December the weather was cold, and the wind icy, adding to the sombre and desolate atmosphere. There were a handful of information panels dotted around; many had heartbreaking photos of the Jews as they disembarked from the trains and awaited their selection, or as they walked uncomprehendingly to the gas chambers, believing they were to be showered. I found it particularly sad to stand and look at ponds where the ashes of hundreds of thousands lay dumped.
Believing we had seen everything, we exited the camp from the far side, planning to walk the outer perimeter of the site. However, far from finding ourselves outside the camp we were in another open area, where the prisoners were initially processed, shaved, washed and given their camp uniforms. It was here too that we found the planned expansion of the camp; a huge area that was partially built before the German army’s fortune turned. Almost too horrible to think about.
Passing freely out of the camp we couldn’t but feel for the poor souls trapped on the wrong side of the barbed wire, condemned to a horrible death. As we walked the site and experienced the bitter December cold, we realized that our visit, far from helping us better understand the plight of those here, instead showed us the impossibility of understanding their suffering. From our life to theirs, the gulf is too large to bridge even in our imagination.
In Auschwitz II, there is a sculpted stone memorial to the victims, with a message repeated in all 21 languages of the victims. That inscription reads “Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity”, a message which continues to resonate in today’s ever more divided world.
- The currency in use is the Polish Zloty, with an exchange rate of approximately 4.5 PLN to 1 Euro.
- The two museum sites are busy, with more than half a million visitors every year. Entry is free, with a paying guided tour available in many languages. Apart from the quieter winter months, if you are not taking a guided tour, you need to book an entry time. See http://auschwitz.org/en/visiting/ for more information and to book.
- We flew with Ryanair into Krakow, and took the airport train from the airport to Krakow main station (cost 8PLN, 20 minutes). From there, thanks to the helpful English speaking ticketing staff, we took a train to Oswieçim (cost 8.5PLN, 90 minutes). See http://rozklad-pkp.pl for train times.